Mr. and Mrs. S. came into the office with their ten-year-old daughter, Sharon. They were very distraught and had numerous complaints about Sharon’s behaviors. Not only was she having problems academically and behaviorally in school, but they also complained that every time they asked Sharon to do something at home it became a major altercation. They felt they were living from one crisis to the next. It seemed the more problems she was having in school, the more the problems she had at home. They had identified a direct relationship between the two. Their question to me was how to avoid such crises.
Family disruptions and its associated anger issues due to a child’s behaviors is a common cause for referrals to Regesh Family and Child Services. Likewise, I find myself giving more and more presentations to parent groups on how to de-escalate crises in the home. I could never understand why parenting is not a mandatory course in every high school. Also, why don’t we find more support groups for parents, even for those not experiencing problems, but more for preventative measures? I have the questions, but not the answers.
For conflict resolution in the home, let’s first agree that conflicts in families are inevitable. Second, parents who come to talk about their children’s behavior often talk in generalities and surprisingly have difficulties being specific about the disruptive behaviors they would like to correct. It seems when we are emotionally involved and stressed, the problem behaviors congeal into one big “headache.” For example, we often use a general term that may mean a different thing to different people. By “stealing,” do we mean taking pennies off the dresser or taking merchandise from a store without paying for it? By being late for curfew, do we mean consistently or randomly? Is it fifteen minutes late or hours late? By saying the child is irresponsible, what are we referring to? Is he or she not admitting to their transgressions or not being on time? Without clearly identifying and understanding the problem, one cannot work on a resolution. Rather, the issue remains an emotional problem which is difficult to resolve.
Once we realize that we need to be specific in identifying problem behaviors, it helps to analyze the situation. For example, is the particular behavior typical of a certain developmental stage? When does the behavior occur? Why might children in general behave this way or why might this particular child behave this way? Is this a new behavior or one we have seen before?
One common question I ask myself is whether the behavior of the child (or even adults) is one of an emotionally disturbed person or is the behavior emotionally disturbing? The first is that of a person where a mental health problem is influencing the behavior, while the later is where the person is causing mental stress to another person. Often in school or home the child is causing emotional stress to the parent or teacher and is thus emotionally disturbing the other person. The child is causing havoc for reasons other than having mental health issues. On the other hand, it might be stressful to the parent or teacher because the child is not in their control.
Often we describe a child as “out of control.” Another question to ask is whether the child is really out of control or just misbehaving and not following directions. That is, whose control is the child out of? Is he out of control of the adult who is asking him to do something, meaning he’s not following their direction, or is the child out of his own control and perhaps having a temper tantrum? If it’s the latter, and he’s having a temper tantrum, he cannot stop himself at that moment. In determining what to do, we must understand this behavior very clearly.
When analyzing a situation with respect to your own children, ask yourself the following questions:
Is the child able or capable of processing the situation with either a parent or third party?
Is the problem behavior dangerous? What is the danger? To whom is the danger? Does this behavior, when it occurs, need an immediate response or can we process the situation with the child?
What are the long-term consequences of this behavior or our reactions/responses to the behavior?
Why does this behavior bother me? Is it disturbed or disturbing? Is the problem my problem or the child’s? This is a much more difficult question than it appears. Does the behavior push only my buttons? In other words, would others agree that the behavior is disturbing to them also?
Is it part of normal development?
So the question remains, how do we engage our children for better cooperation? Here are some helpful means of achieving this goal:
Describe what you see as the problem
When parents describe the problem, it gives the children a chance to tell themselves what to do. This also assures that both of you are identifying the same problem. This is an important first step. Continue attempting to agree on exactly what the problem is, as there might be differences in the way the two of you perceive things. For example, is the problem the teen came in late from curfew or “my parents are just in a bad mood?” One is breaking a rule while the other is a problem with a person. The key is to keep a calm voice and demeanor when doing this exercise.
Information is a lot easier to take then accusations. When given information, kids can usually figure out for themselves what to do. Ask the child what he/she thinks should be the resolution and praise them for their effort. Sometimes information quickly turns to accusations and name-calling. Of course, this becomes provocative and leads to more conflict. We soon forget the original disagreement and now concentrate on the new problem.
Say it with a word
Less is more effective. Kids dislike hearing lectures. The old parenting program called 1-2-3- Magic is so successful because it reduces the amount of words and lecturing to a minimum. The more words, the more there is to fight about. Keep it simple!
Talk about your feelings
Kids need to hear that their parents’ have feelings. We don’t have to protect them from this. In fact, it encourages them to use their words and to talk about how they are feeling and what’s bothering them. On the other hand, when parents get overly emotional with their feelings, it often frightens the child who feels they have to protect themselves or the parent. It’s important to be genuine, but not hurtful.
Write a note
Sometimes it’s easier to read a note than to be told something. Compliments can also be shared in notes. Note writing avoids heavy emotional reactions. I’ve seen this strategy work over and over again. It’s amazing what a “thank you” note will do for relationship building between a parent and child. I once worked with a family where, after tremendous strife one day between a father and his daughter, the father bought a rose and just placed it on his daughter’s pillow without any card or lecture. She got the message that he still loved her and the relationship was on its way.
Of course, this is only the beginning of building better relationships in a family, by developing good conflict resolution strategies. Many books and articles have been written on the topic. What are YOU doing to de-escalate crises in your family when they arise? You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your strategies and thoughts on this topic. I will share your ideas and strategies with our readers.
Mr. Schild is the Executive Director of Regesh Family and Child Services in Toronto, Ontario Canada. Regesh runs many programs helping families and youth dealing with personal and family issues in their lives. He is currently open to speaking engagements. He can be reached at 416-495-8832 extension 222 or email@example.com. Visit www.regesh.com. See our second website specific to our enhanced anger management clinic at www.regeshangerclinic.com